How to Get Someone You Love To Change (Spoiler: You Can’t)

Last month, I went for a hike to celebrate my father’s 74th birthday. My father is a botanist, and it was with profound joy that I watched him meticulously bend over to identify flowers amidst the California bloom. Aside from being happy to see my father doing something he loved, I was moved because this simple habit, walking and bending down, was almost impossible for him 5 short years ago. 

For most of the last two decades, my father suffered chronic back pain – the result of years of pounding concrete as a runner. It pained me to see him suffer and I desperately wanted to help him. I tried everything I could think of to get him to change his habits and improve his back pain.

Nothing I did had a lasting impact. Hard as I might try, I couldn’t “fix” him and my father would inevitably return to the habits that caused pain in the first place. Moreover, my judgments and pressure created a wedge between us.

Then,  after decades of worsening pain, my father underwent back surgery, which resolved the back pain. 

Early in his recovery, I lent him my Concept 2 Rower and a few free weights. I’d recently taken up rowing, and built out a home gym. While I had no expectation that he’d adopt a new physical routine, I enthusiastically shared what I’d been learning. I taught him a few simple exercises: how to row with good form, how to lift some basic weights, and how to hang from a bar.

When I came back to reclaim my Concept 2 Rower a month later, he was rowing and practicing the exercises I taught him every day. In the two years since, I’ve helped him continue to build on his exercise habits until he’s exercising for two hours most days!

My father’s transformation has been profound. He is out of pain, working in his garden, and exercising several hours a day. I am immensely proud, but ultimately can’t take much credit for his recovery.


They have to want it

I have some tough news: you can’t change people. People have to want change in order to make progress. 

If they don’t want to change their behavior, that’s where to begin. You can start with data, with a personal appeal, or any other approach that you think will work to help them want to change. But without the core desire – their “why” – change is impossible.

Let go of the outcome

My biggest learning, and one that I’ve had to confront again and again, is that in order to help someone we love, we have to let go of the need for them to change. You have to let go of the outcome.

You don’t have to care less, but we all know when we’re being pressured, even if it isn’t explicit. And – I don’t know about you – but when I’m pressured, I dig in my heels and resist change all the more! 

To encourage someone you love to change their behavior, you have to first get comfortable with the fact that they may not ever change.

Attitude is everything

I spent many years helping kids with autism build better habits and learned an invaluable lesson: attitude trumps everything. 

Many of the kids I worked with were non-verbal, and they, and their families, would often be bossed around by therapists and specialists who believed things should only be done a certain way. 

These kids learned to respond, primarily, to a caregiver’s attitude. And I learned that when I showed up with a loving presence, we’d be able to connect much more easily.

This same approach holds true for everyone. To help someone you love change, showing up with a kind and gentle attitude is more than half the battle.

Be like gravity

The best invitations feel like gravity; impossible to resist

We’ve all been sold to by pushy salespeople. Gravity is the opposite. 

Instead of pushing and pressuring, be so engaging, so inviting, that people want to gravitate towards you, and towards the changes you’re asking for.

Start where they are

For someone to change, you have to begin with where they are right now. 

That’s true for any of us in pursuing any kind of behavior change. And it is particularly true when you’re wanting someone else to make progress.

We can’t run a marathon tomorrow if today we’re healing a sprained ankle. We can only build small habits from where we are right now.

Change takes the time that it takes 

This comes back, full circle, to “we can’t control people.” 

Change takes time, usually more than we want to give it. This is as true of change in others as it is for change within ourselves!

Helping someone we love takes the time that it takes. We can’t dictate how long a transformation will take. Impatience can not only create a negative atmosphere of pressure that slows down progress, but it also can mean that we miss important markers of progress along the way or lose the opportunity to be part of someone’s journey as they come back from a setback.

During a conversation with author and conflict resolution specialist Dana Caspersen, she said to me, “Not only can you not change people, but it is none of your damned business.” 

My judgment of the habits that led to my father’s injury and pressure for him to change did not help him recover, but actually got in the way of us having a healthy relationship.

Trying to get anyone to do something that they don’t already want to do is wasted effort. All that we can do is support and celebrate where someone is, and encourage them to take incrementally small steps in the direction we’ll hope they’ll go.

Until next time,

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